“I think I realized what Marrakech reminds me of.”
“The fragrance section of a department store, but as an entire city.”
I uttered this to my traveling companion, my girlfriend Sheila, as we walked through Marrakech’s Jemaa El-Fna square. Like many travelers, we had been drawn to Morocco after seeing pictures on social media that evoked the exotic image of Lawrence of Arabia.
Our itinerary included stops in Marrakech, the leather tanneries of Fez, a night under the stars in the Sahara, strolling through the cerulean buildings of Chefchaouen, and – of course – storied Casablanca.
The Medina Maze
It was our first visit to Morocco, and we decided to make Marrakech our first stop. We planned to stay in traditional riad accommodations during our travels. Riads, traditional homes with many rooms and a central courtyard, are typically located in a medina, or old town. Although medinas evoke a feeling of history and authenticity, they’re extremely confusing to navigate. Lack of posted street signs or numbers – as well as twists and turns and numerous dead ends – makes it almost certain that visitors will lose their bearings at some point.
The payoff for all this directional hassle is an accommodation experience unlike any you’ve ever experienced. We were greeted in Marrakech by our host Zuhair, who, after ushering us in, presented us with a platter of olives, bread, nuts and the ever-present elixir of mint tea.
Riad hosts can be some of the best resources during a stay in Morocco, helping you find authentic activities and experiences, hiring trustworthy drivers to shuttle you around the sites, and finding a safe place for you to park a rental car overnight. In Fez, our host actually walked us to the tanneries and got us inside to one of the best viewing platforms, which we likely wouldn’t have been able to do without him.
The trade-off to the medina’s authentic experience is the abundance of people trying to separate you from your money in less-than-legitimate methods. Luckily, we were prepared, and by the end of our trip, they were more of an annoyance than anything else.
Ports, Camels and Wine
After the colorful Marrakech, we ventured out of the big cities looking for activities that would give us a glimpse into Moroccans’ daily lives. Our adventures included a day trip to the quiet port city of Essaouira, a cooking class where we prepared a traditional tagine, and discussing Berber culture over a fire after a Saharan camel ride.
We also ventured to Domaine De La Zouina, one of the few wineries in Morocco. In addition to enjoying a tasting and learning about wine production with our host, we discussed the challenges of working in the wine industry in a predominantly Muslim country. We also learned about topics ranging from politics to health care, which gave us so much insight about the inner workings of Morocco society.
Morocco is a destination that demands patience and an awareness of your surroundings from the first-time visitor. But it also offers some of the richest experiences and the most welcoming people if you’re willing to go out and find them.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make myself some mint tea.
Massachusetts-based travel writer Chris Caswell and girlfriend Sheila travel the world and share their adventures on their blog.
To discover all the colors, scents, tastes and sounds of Morocco with a small group tour, visit ClubAdventures.com.